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Fiscal Cliff Means We Need More Health Cures, Not Health Care

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Alamy
Alamy

With the election over, America is facing a fiscal cliff that could impact everything the government does. Meanwhile, somewhere in America, in the next minute (and roughly every minute after that), another American will get Alzheimer's or dementia.

These two points -- the fiscal cliff and rising incidence in disease -- are closely connected. And so if we can address the disease crisis, we can help address the fiscal crisis.

For the patient, the news is a death sentence. Alzheimer's is the sixth leading cause of death for Americans, the fifth leading cause for those over 65 and the only one of the top killers for which there is no cure. Fully half of Americans who live to age 85 will get it.

For the family, the diagnosis means they'll lose their loved one twice. Long before death, they'll be forced to watch helplessly as the ravages of the disease rob their spouse or parent of memory, personality and the ability to perform even the most basic functions of daily living. Today, approximately 5.2 million Americans have Alzheimer's and fully one-third of likely voters reported in a recent poll that they currently have a loved one with Alzheimer's.

For the country facing a fiscal crisis, as well as the family, it is a tremendously expensive disease, one whose cost goes well beyond the $200 billion this nation currently spends each year for medical, nursing and personal services to Alzheimer's patients, either at home or at skilled nursing facilities.

To put it in context, Given that the Alzheimer's Association of America says it costs $150 billion a year to care for people with Alzheimer's and that there are roughly 300 million americans, it's already costing every American man, woman and child more than $500 a year to take care of people with Alzheimer's. If nothing is done to slow, prevent or cure the disease, with the baby boomers aging, those costs will soon be above $3,000 for every American, according to my calculations. The overwhelming majority of these costs will be paid by Medicare and Medicaid.

We need a cure, but right now we are spending only $100 in research for a cure for every $28,000 in medical expenses. In the case of Alzheimer's, where the cost of care is so high, and the incidence of the disease is so widespread, it's much cheaper to find a cure than to keep treating the symptoms.

If a treatment can be developed that can slow the progression of Alzheimer's, the human and financial savings would be immediate and substantial. If Alzheimer's was cured, or if there was a vaccine, it would save even more. Remember, at one point America spent a fortune on iron lungs and wheelchairs for people with polio. But the March of Dimes, Federal investments in scientific research and Dr. Salk stepped in. Now we don't have to pay for polio.

Sadly, the Congressional Budget Office refuses to score such potential savings from actually preventing or curing diseases. Therefore, it's not surprising that neither the Paul Ryan plan nor President Obama's budgets have taken future cures into account.

The first Obama Administration set some good goals on Alzheimer's with National Alzheimer's Project Act. But much more can and must be done in President Obama's second term -- and it should be bipartisan in scope.

As James P. Pinkerton, a domestic policy adviser to Presidents Reagan and Bush 41, observes, "Health cures can be a lot less costly than health care. It's great to make existing healthcare cheaper, but it's even greater to use science to make existing diseases disappear. It's better to beat than to treat."

It is estimated that by mid-century, when today's 20-somethings become eligible for Medicare, there will be three times today's number of Alzheimer's patients as today, and the yearly cost of their care will skyrocket to $1 trillion. That's money we don't have and, as importantly don't need to spend.

And that's why America needs a bipartisan effort to find health cures--so we can not only improve lives but also reduce our spending on health care. As we approach the fiscal cliff, if we are to gain control of Medicare and Medicaid costs and all other healthcare costs, we need to make Alzheimer's and other medical research an urgent national priority.